One of the highlights of my 2014 trip to France was visiting the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
For many of us, Vimy is simply something we learn about in middle school; something we recall again during Remembrance Day ceremonies or see played out in Hollywood mini series. But you don’t have to look too far down the lineage of a Canadian family to find a relative who served in World War I. We visited on an inconspicuous Sunday in May, and we were hardly the only Canadian visitors.
Our Canadian National Vimy Memorial Experience
We departed Paris in the morning, arriving in Arras around 11:00 a.m. We arrived at the visitor centre by cab not more than 25 minutes later. Before the taxi left us we collected a business card from our driver which came in handy later, when we had a bilingual staffer call a cab to collect us.
At the visitor centre we first signed up for the free 1 p.m. tour, then watched a short documentary and picked our way through the interpretive exhibit. Following that, we walked through a crater-pocked landscape, much of which was cordoned off due to the persisting risk of unexploded ordnances. It’s a risk made all too real by the fact that grazing sheep keep the grass trim, rather than human landscapers.
Some fifteen minutes later we reached Vimy Monument, the focal point of the 250-acre memorial grounds.
It’s an imposing sight; a hulking white limestone monument decorated with the names of the deceased. Twin pylons stand 30 metres above the monument’s platform, symbolizing the unity and sacrifice of Canada and France.
The monument features twenty statues which are fraught with symbolism, though none are as haunting and heartbreaking as Canada Bereft.
Carved from a single, 30-tonne block of stone, the statue portrays a cloaked female overlooking the Douai Plains. She faces east, toward the dawn of a new day.
“This saddened figure represents Canada – a young nation mourning her fallen sons.”
I just can’t imagine all of the able men I know leaving Canada to live, fight and die in the squalid conditions of the trenches. Under what circumstances could I endorse the departure of my husband, brother, father and friends, to fight in a war that’s a world away? Is there such a circumstance? Am I selfish to want to clutch those I love dearest as innocent civilians suffer while their countries are invaded and occupied? How in the world do military spouses handle that? How many parallels can we draw today?
After visiting the Monument we then walked a short distance to the two on-site cemeteries. After paying our respects we returned to the visitor centre to complete our visit with a guided underground tour, led by Canadian student interns.
The tour ran 50 minutes and first brought us through the trenches and then underground into Grange Tunnel.
Grange Tunnel measures 800 metres and lies at a depth of 10 metres. 10 metres below ground was a sufficient enough depth “to ensure protection from large calibre howitzer shellfire.” Its function was to connect the front line with the reserve lines behind it. Walking through the tunnel, you can’t help but confront the realities of war. It’s a tour that shouldn’t be missed.
Vimy Ridge: Canada’s Bloody Coming-of-Age Tale
Apart from gaining a tremendous amount of gratitude, paying a visit to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial provided me with a great deal of insight into Canadian history and identity. At the time of WWI, Canada had only achieved independence for 47 or so years (though Britain still governed our foreign policy.)
Canada was a young nation. The exhibit pointed out that some Canadians no longer felt ties to the British ‘motherland’, and that many felt the colony’s sons should feel no obligation to risk their lives in a distant war. Meanwhile, years passed and the conflict continued. Fewer men enlisted and support waned. Enter Conscription. The government used the war’s most ardent and vested supporters – military wives and families – to drum up pro-war sentiment at home. No doubt this would have been a point of contention among Canadians at the time.
Other Things I Learned:
Canadian soldiers were notoriously tough and feared by the opposition (a documented fact).
A visit to Vimy proves there is no glamour in wartime, despite what Hollywood may portray. Take for example, that soldiers used irons as an effective way to eradicate lice, not so much wrinkles, from their uniforms.
Following the victory at Vimy Ridge (and other battles), Canada emerged as a formidable force which propelled national identity and independence. At the signing of the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty, Canada had finally earned her own signature.
All in all, I found the Memorial to be informative, peaceful, somber, yet enjoyable. I would recommend any Canadian pay a visit. Not only do I have a greater social understanding of conflict and sacrifice, but a greater respect for what it means to be Canadian.
In August of 2012 the Bank of Canada announced that the new $20 polymer note would feature Vimy Monument.
How do you get to Vimy Ridge from Paris?
Vimy is easily accessed by train. Depart from Paris’ Gare Nord, where you will purchase a ticket to Arras. Find a schedule here: sncf.com/passengers. Arras is located approximately 50 minutes north of Paris and 8 kilometres from Vimy.
From Arras we took a cab to the Memorial, simply for the sake of ease and convenience. (Also because I had read that there are no buses running between Arras and the Memorial.) The return cab fare cost us about 60€. And don’t be worried about getting lost in translation. If you are able to ask the taxi driver, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” he will likely answer, “To Vimy Ridge?”
We purchased round-trip tickets for the 3:00 p.m. return train to Paris. I am making mention of this because it was enough time for us to comfortably see most of the memorial at a leisurely pace. Of course you can book your return ticket at the Arras station, rather than in advance.
Have you visited the Canadian National Vimy Memorial? Did it profoundly change you? Let me know, comment below.